TWO unarmed gardai narrowly escaped injury after fleeing ATM raiders fired a shotgun blast in the direction of their patrol car.
The uniformed gardai were on the scene "within 40 seconds" after an alarm was set off by the gun gang at the Ulster Bank branch in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.
Their speedy reaction forced the gang to make off with only a small amount of cash, although they blew open the ATM machine by igniting gas.
The raiders struck at the bank at Rafter Street at around 3.30am yesterday and after blasting the ATM back into the bank from the street, they then smashed in the door to allow them gain access to the money.
Gardai said it was the first time that gas had been used in an ATM raid here but pointed out that similar tactics had been adopted by robbery gangs in Manchester and elsewhere in the UK.
"It is a new phenomenon in this country and more elaborate than trying to lift out a machine from the bank wall with a digger," one officer added.
The explosion set off the alarm and the two gardai, who were in their nearby station at the time, reacted immediately and jumped into a patrol car.
As they were arriving, the raiders were attempting to scoop up some of the cash that had fallen from the badly damaged ATM machine.
Most of the cash is understood to have been marked by dye, and officers said only a minor percentage of the contents was taken as a result.
At least four men were involved in the robbery and one of them opened fire when he spotted the garda patrol car arriving outside the bank.
Gardai said last night it was not yet clear whether the shot was meant as a warning to the officers or intended to injure or kill them but it did not strike the patrol car.
They made off in a dark-coloured, high-powered estate car towards Weafer Street and then either headed northwards towards Bunclody or Ferns or westwards in the direction of New Ross.
Officers believe that some of those involved in the English ATM raids have links with crime gangs responsible for earlier ATM robberies here and may have passed on details about using gas to blow open the "hole the wall" machines.
The scene was sealed off yesterday as technical experts completed a forensic examination.
Anybody with information can contact Enniscorthy station at 053 9242580 or phone the confidential line, 1800 666111.